Friday, December 13, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 3)

Dear Muse,

By the time WWII was over, the Andrews Sisters had left a remarkable impact on the American public. Rallying America's positive national spirit had given them a great boost in popularity, making them one of the most beloved girl groups in history.

At war's end and beyond, the Andrews Sisters expanded their outreach, collaborating with other singers and other big names to spread cheer across the nation. While Americans knew them well enough to distinguish them individually (Patty, the youngest and most fun-loving; Maxene, the prettiest; and LaVerne, the eldest and most serious), they were unanimously loved as a group. And, despite personal clashes, the three sisters continued to delight audiences as a group well into the 1950s and '60s.

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 3)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Beyond the war

While Patty, Maxene and LaVerne scored their biggest hits during the Depression and war years, the end of the war demonstrated that their success was far from over. The Girls had already established their positive identity in the music world and positive ability to leave people feeling good. Now all they needed to do was continue their chain of success.

So they did. They kept on making hits like "Pennsylvania Polka" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," joining their name with entertainers like Bing Crosby and Tommy Dorsey. They kept singing with an energy that was so empowering that Disc highlighted it in 1946: 

The Andrews Sisters have managed to pick up a potent style of delivery that wows the listeners – sends every tune they warble sliding right into the groove. What makes these three jukebox royalty is fundamentally their own. They have a zest, a kind of earthy gusto that gets under the skin of John Doe or GI Joe, makes him relax and feel good. The girls like to sing, like the people they’re singing to, and that genuineness gets across. (qtd. in Sforza, Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story 71. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

But their fame didn't stop there. By the end of their career, they had starred in more Hollywood films than any other singing group in motion picture history; made 113 charted Billboard hits; and sold between 75-100 million records. (See Wikipedia for further details.)

Heck, they even worked with Disney, providing the musical narrative for the shorts "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet" (Make Mine Music) and "Little Toot" (Melody Time). Say what you want: being affiliated with Disney is HUGE for musical pop stars. (And speaking of "Johnny Fedora," check out this article comparing it to Pixar's pre-Monsters University short, "The Blue Umbrella." Personally, I think "The Blue Umbrella" is a total ripoff of "Johnny Fedora." Besides, "Johnny Fedora" is so much better with the Andrews Sisters narrating. 'Nuff said.) You can check out the first short in the Youtube video below and the second short here.

But while I can argue that the Andrews Sisters' career was very successful, I cannot claim that their lives were perfect. Although picture-perfect to their fans, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne had a turbulent relationship behind the scenes. During the 1950s and '60s, they went through several break-ups and reunions. Personally, I feel that the break-ups were mainly Patty's fault. Being the lead singer, she felt she deserved more money than either of her sisters, and broke off in 1951 to pursue a solo career (without telling them, might I add). In short, she effectively caused an estrangement between her, Maxene and LaVerne.

Nevertheless, in spite of Patty's selfishness, the Girls realized how important it was to keep the group together. The Andrews Sisters continued as a duo through the 1950s, with the members changing when Patty rejoined the group in 1956 and LaVerne died in 1967. Despite how petty the sisters could be at times, I respect them for being able to set their personal problems aside out of respect for their fans. They knew fans needed cheerful inspiration from their beloved girl group. So, being professionals, they put their listeners first and gave them the cheeriness they were hoping to hear.

All in all, the Andrews Sisters' perseverance and giving spirit was like nothing any other celebrity has demonstrated in history. Sure, there have been philanthropists in the celebrity lineup - but none that made so much effort to be there for so many people. Patty, Maxene and LaVerne were there for those who needed them in the roughest times of the '30s and '40s, and they continued to be there for people who relied on their optimism to help them get through the post-war years.

Essentially, the Andrews Sisters were a group America needed to progress. They were important factors in America's ultimate victory against the Axis Powers, and they were important cultural icons in the years following. For that reason - for the lasting impact they made on American culture - it is crucial for people to remember them today. I hope that this fascinating trio will never be truly forgotten. And, as long as there are people like me who keep humming "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" from time to time, there is a good chance that the Andrews Sisters' shining name will never completely fade.

To conclude, here are the last few of their songs I'd like to share with you.

1. "Pennsylvania Polka" (Hits of '42)

When I hear this song, I always think of one of those big-band dance halls from the '40s, like the ones you see in Radio Days. You can practically hear the Andrews Sisters dancing as they sing to the big-band swing. At least Patty sounds like she's having fun.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

2. "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" (The Song Is...Harold Arlen)

This popular song from 1945 peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Although it's considered a prominent Bing Crosby song (since he's leading), the Girls provide a really rollicking backup. It's one of the most enjoyable songs they ever did, so it's definitely worth concluding their story with.

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

P.S.  By the way, something coincidentally wonderful and related to the Andrews Sisters happened over Thanksgiving Break! While I was flying to California and mulling over revisions for my blog posts, I happened to sit next to one of the Directors at the History Theatre in Minneapolis. He informed me that the Theatre is showing an Andrews Sisters musical this next month, based on their life - which is just what I happened to be writing about!! He even gave me a 2-for-1 coupon so that I could bring a friend to the show at a discount!! It's the most amazing stroke of luck ever!!

Unfortunately, I won't be able to bring Siena or DivaStar (who I know would especially appreciate the music). But I'll find someone. I can't to wait to watch the show and then write a review about it!

Until next time,

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 2)

Dear Muse,

The Andrews Sisters had gotten off to a great start with "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" and their following hits. But as WWII broke out, the Girls really came into their own. If Americans had needed the Girls during the Depression, they needed them even more now. With anxious audiences hanging on their every note, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne knew exactly what they had to do.

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 2)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

Send them off with a smile and a song

As Americans at home went into overdrive to support their fighting troops abroad, so did the Andrews Sisters. If "we're all in this together" had to be the dominant mantra, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne did their best to boost enthusiasm for that mantra anywhere and everywhere. They broadened their venues to army camps, naval bases, USO centers, munitions factories and hospitals, often performing as many as 6 shows a day. At the height of WWII, they knew that GI Joes needed relief just as much as the average American civilian. 

Maxene recalled of the war years: 

If there was a dark side to those trying years, there was a bright side, too – a sense of national unity, real togetherness, a feeling so strong, so exhilarating and so unifying that it did more than help the country to survive. It helped us to win the war. The Andrews Sisters were right in the thick of all this, for the same reasons that millions of other entertainers were – because we wanted to be. We wanted to visit every USO club and military base and GI hospital we could find, both in the states and overseas. If we were on tour doing four and five shows a day, seven days a week, fifty weeks each year in cities all across the United States, we still found time to visit the service-men and –women. And when Patty, LaVerne and I went overseas for the USO, we often added four or five impromptu shows to our schedule every day, for any two or three soldiers who might ask us. (qtd. in Sforza, Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story 13. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

The enthusiasm the Andrews Sisters shared with their audiences made them (unsurprisingly) even bigger stars than before. GIs liked their songs so much that they started naming fighter planes and bombers after the titles. Officials demanded their presence at military departures. Even Hollywood took a keen interest in them, signing them on to perform in propaganda films like Buck Privates (1941) and Private Buckaroo (1942). Fans clamored for a spot in theaters to watch them. With a place on the stage, radio and big screen, the Girls were at the peak of their popularity. 

In time, the Girls came to represent more than a cheery girl group: they represented America's positive national spirit during WWII. As writer William Ruhlmann observed:

If, after half a century, we still cannot think of the Andrews Sisters without remembering World War II, it may be because they continue to embody the positive national spirit called forth during that time. […] Just as a common enemy forced Americans to think of themselves as a unified whole, their pop music brought them together. It served to relieve them for a moment and renew them for the continuing struggle. (qtd. in Sforza 13-14)

That said, here are some of the songs that rallied American troops in those troubled times. 

1. "The Woodpecker Song" (Hits of '40)

This is a fun song for kids; as bird-themed songs go, I personally find it catchier than "Rockin' Robin." Originally Italian.

2. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" (Songs That Got Us Through WWII)

Even though I previously included this in my WWII Week! (part 2) post, it's worth mentioning here, since it's one of the iconic hits of WWII. It was first introduced in the 1941 Abbott and Costello film Buck Privates, and is usually the first song that comes to mind when anyone thinks of the Andrews Sisters. Also, if you listen closely, you'll find that it sounds very similar to "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" (see previous post). 

3. "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" (Hits of '42)

And NOW, the song you've all been waiting for!! "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" was a key song for the Andrews Sisters. On one hand, it showed what entertaining performers they were - as the video clip from Private Buckaroo demonstrates.

On the other hand, while the song brought people together, it also brought bittersweet feelings with it. Maxene described one of the most memorable scenes associated with this song:

We went down to the docks during an appearance in Seattle and sang for the boys as their ship pulled away into the Pacific, headed for combat. At the request of military officials supervising the departure, we sang, " 'Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.' The scene is still vivid in my memory. We stood down on the pier, looking up at all those young men leaning over the ship’s rails, waving and yelling and screaming. Any time that scene was reenacted, and it was happening countless times every day in groups large and small all over the country in 1942, one thought nagged at you: How many of the young men shipping out wouldn’t come back? I can still see the mothers and sweethearts standing on that dock and singing along with us as the ship sailed away to war. (qtd. in Sforza 85-86)  

Next time: the end of war.


P.S. Although I included a video of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," I'm including an MP3 attachment as well if you just want to listen to the song.

*Photos courtesy of John Sforza, unless otherwise cited.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 1)

Dear Muse,

Some time ago, my cousin Siena expressed an interest in the Andrews Sisters.

Since this comes from a girl whose interests range from k.d. lang to Gregorian bell chants, I responded thus:

Still, I'm glad she brought it up, because the Andrews Sisters are well worth remembering. (And seeing how almost nobody I know today does remember them, it's even more critical that I pay homage to them here.) This upcoming trio of posts will be focused on the time the musical trio made their BIGGEST hits: the late '30s through mid-'40s. (Of course they kept performing for decades after, but their most beloved songs came from this particular era.) And, although the posts are for everyone to read, I will begin with this statement:

"Dedicated (with deepest affection) to Siena, whose tastes are sometimes even more eclectic than mine." 

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 1)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

A bright beginning

You can't think of the Andrews Sisters today without remembering hits like "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)." Nor can you think of them without remembering WWII. In those dark and desperate years, "the Girls" - Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne - became symbols of hope. Their mellifluous melodies and infectious enthusiasm buoyed GIs and radio-listeners alike, encouraging them to continue their struggle against the Axis Powers. Thanks to their music, the Andrews Sisters became one of the best-loved "girl groups" in history.

But what made the Andrews Sisters so unique? After all, it's not like they were the only girl group of the swingin' thirties and forties - the Boswell SistersPickens Sisters, Barry Sisters, King Sisters and Dinning Sisters were also competing for fame. What did Patty, Maxene and LaVerne have to make them stand out from the rest?

One theory is their versatility. According to John Sforza, author of Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story, the Andrews Sisters' success could easily be explained by how masterfully they managed different tunes:

...the trio had major hits with nearly all types of music, and they handled different rhythms with ease. They sang swing, boogie-woogie, eight-to-the-bar, country-western, folk, calypso, ragtime, blues, ballads, inspirational, gospel, seasonal favorites, and a host of songs derived from or based upon Yiddish, Italian, Irish, French, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Brazilian, and Mexican melodies. (Swing It! 11. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

Another theory is their "cohesive harmony and perfectly timed vocal syncopations" (29-30), as well as their "more modern and conventional style" (30). Still, I personally think that what set the Andrews Sisters apart was their cheeriness. 

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

No matter what song they were singing, the Girls radiated cheeriness to the utmost. Every song they touched turned happy. As Sforza put it, "there was an innate desire instilled in all three sisters to please their audiences, to be happy and to inspire happiness through their music" (13). Not only did they try to sound optimistic all the time, they also did their best to make others feel optimistic too. Under the Andrews Sisters' magic touch, the saddest ballads became bright melodies. Under their influence, tragedy was resolved and hope restored. 

While humorist James Thurber mocked "Andrews' Ready Relief" for spreading unnecessary sunshine in intentionally tragic songs (see his chapter "Take Her Up Tenderly" from Thurber Country), the rest of the country didn't mind. With a Great Depression going on, Americans liked a girl group that could cheer them up. As it turned out, the new sound of "Andrews' Ready Relief" was just what America needed at the time. That cheeriness was what cast the trio into the spotlight and kept them there until America's entry into WWII. 

And now for the songs themselves! To begin with, here are several of the Andrews Sisters' first great hits, including the song that started it all: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön."

(Although the songs in this set of posts are mostly from the Andrews Sisters' Top 30 Hits, I may not include all the hits that you might associate with the Girls. The following songs are just the ones I like best.)

1. "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" (Hits of '37)

Until 1937, the Girls had tried their talents in vaudeville shows with little success. Their former lack of success made the surprise even greater when "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" became an overnight smash hit. As Sforza observed, the song "took the girls from vaudeville obscurity and rocketed them to stardom" (29). The song is a translated Yiddish tune, meaning "To Me, You Are Beautiful." It's a great example of how versatile Patty, Maxene and LaVerne were.


2. "Oh Ma-Ma" (Hits of '38)

This is a fun little ditty - a bit catty, very like gossipy sisters (which is kind of fitting for this trio). Italian this time. 

3. "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" (Hits of '40)

By 1940, the Andrews Sisters had tried many different music forms, from swing to boogie-woogie. Now, they introduced a new form to the public: eight-to-the-bar. Leonard Maltin described their landmark recording in these terms:

‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’ was a reflection of the growing popularity in jazz circles of boogie-woogie music. But no one had yet turned this piano phenomenon […] into a vehicle for a popular song, or even thought about adding lyrics to the rolling rhythm of boogie. ‘Beat Me Daddy’ was such a hit that it launched a tidal wave of boogie songs, many of which the girls recorded. (qtd. in Sforza, 12)

More to come tomorrow! Next we'll get into the trio's wartime hits.


*Photos courtesy of John Sforza, unless otherwise cited.